In I Feel Pretty, Amy Schumer conks her head on a stationary bicycle at SoulCycle and imagines herself to be super-beautiful and extra-hot, a conviction that precipitates her character’s social and professional ascent. That’s a minefield of a premise, to be sure, and the internet has already clapped back at the actress its disapproval: Schumer is perfectly attractive; what kind of old-normal, male-gaze bullshit is all this about her needing to be deluded into finding herself beautiful, etc.?
Fair, but the movie — as messy and half-baked as it is — plays a lot sweeter than its central idea might make it sound. Renee Bennett’s great challenge is not that she’s unattractive but that she lacks confidence. She toils in a Chinatown basement doing tech work for a high-end cosmetics company with its headquarters filled with sashaying, whisper-thin sylphs. Once Renee becomes convinced that she’s one of them, a world that seemed so hostile and judgmental suddenly opens up and reveals its secrets.
Meanwhile, she does not actually look any different to the people around her. She’s just an energetic, self-assured woman who seems to know what she wants. Indeed, once Renee is able to see beyond her own issues, she discovers that everyone has some hang-up. A guy she starts to date (Rory Scovel) feels self-conscious about taking Zumba classes and not being macho enough. The head of the cosmetics company (Michelle Williams, stealing every scene she’s in with ruthless efficiency) has a high-pitched squeak of a voice that prevents people from taking her seriously.
The problem with I Feel Pretty isn’t that it’s offensive but that it’s often plodding and unfunny, almost as if its creators are afraid to have too much fun with such a loaded premise. They do offer some obligatory jokes early on about Renee’s klutziness and ordinariness: She’s mistaken for an employee at a drugstore, she tears her pants on a bike, she’s practically invisible to people at the cashier’s line, yadda yadda. These are not so much bust-a-gut-laughing-out-loud gags as they are chuckle-lightly-if-you’re-in-a-generous-mood gags — and I was, so I did.
At its best, the film gets at a very special kind of corrosive self-loathing that our perceived flaws — especially when it comes to body image — can allow to fester. And it also presents the all-too-real phenomenon of how we can go too far in the other direction once we do get a handle on these perceived flaws, taking the whole self-assurance thing to pathological levels. Some of the funniest, most wince-worthy scenes involve Renee going out with her friends on a joint date and assuming the men are all trying to get at her. To quote another problematic fave: “It’s funny ’cause it’s true.” To anyone who’s been there — and I suspect we’ve all been at some point — the wild pendulum swings of confidence and loathing ring all too real.
Indeed, I wondered at a couple of points whether this high-concept pitch was just a lure, and if the filmmakers were actually more interested in an earnest exploration of their subject — a la the famous bait-and-switch of the Vince Vaughn-Jennifer Aniston domestic drama The Break-Up. But, no, that’d be giving I Feel Pretty too much credit and would demand overlooking a lot of failed, unimaginative attempts at humor; wanting to have it both ways, the creators claim an uninspired middle ground stranded between serious and funny. Schumer remains likable, and the film has its moments, but there are so many excellent opportunities here for poignant cringe comedy that more often than not I Feel Pretty feels like a missed opportunity — and a slow, ponderous one at that.